The Master Milkman

Youssef el Sebai

It is four o'clock in the morning. From time to time a cock's crow rises here and there. Abu Sarie rubs his eyes and turns over in bed stretching and yawning. From the farthest corner of the room a shrill, piercing voice calls continuously, persistently, like frogs croaking.


“Abu Sarie ! Abu Sarie !”


Abu Sarie goes on stretching and yawning and the voice goes on calling insistently:


“Abu Sarie ! Abu Sarie !”


Abu Sarie growls, but the voice evidently does not regard the growl as a sufficient answer, for it goes on with its plea:


“Get up, son.. Get up, dear.. Do be reasonable! Abu Sarie ! Abu Sarie !”


Losing patience Abu Sarie suddenly shouts angrily:


“Oh, alright, alright! I'm awake now, so stop your racket - or are you possessed by a devil called Abu Sarie ?”


It's for your own good. I don't want you to lose your job and go back to idling from café to café !”


“Cheerful, aren't you for this time of day?”


This conversation between Abu Sarie and his mother went on every morning at the crack of dawn, almost word for word - like a tape being replayed - in the rooftop room that they shared in Sharia Mumtaz in EI Baghala, - the Muleteers' Quarter.


Abu Sarie had just started on his new job as a tram conduct6r. His mother had felt when she saw him for the first time in his khaki uniform that her greatest dream had come true, and that there was only one thing more she wished for to complete her happiness before she died, and that was to see him safely married to a decent girl.
She was not overdoing it to feel such joy at seeing him settle down as a public functionary, in his jacket, his trousers and his tarboush – in other words, as an effendi. It was really worth rejoicing at, in the first place because he was the first effendi in that fine family, and in the second place because Abu Sarie was the last person you would imagine could settle down to any job.


It was truly a gift from heaven! A most unexpected climax to a life of roguery and mischief. Who could have believed it possible that this light-headed, irresponsible, vagabond who never had a care in the world, or worried about the future, or did a stroke of work - who would have believed that this hooligan for whom fun and games were every thing in the world, would ever settle down to a job and abide by rules and regulations, restrictions and timetables?


As his mother put it, he had always been a bit of a fighting cock ever since he had come into the world, full of play, reckless, undepen¬dable, and utterly irresponsible. He only went to the kuttab1 because he was encouraged by a daily beating from the paternal cane first thing in the morning. He often played truant and was renowned for the pranks he played on the good sheikhs. His mother still relates how when Sheikh Shah tout tried to put him in the school punishment room at the age of seven he jumped out of the window, not just to get away but to creep up to Sheikh Shahtout's own room and lock him in while he was at his prayers, so that he remained a prisoner until the caretaker set him free next morning. His mother still remembers how he used to save the water-melon rind to take to school: “I'm saving it for a rainy day”, he would say: in fact he had innumerable uses for it, the most noteworthy being to pelt the boys on the nape of the neck during lessons, and make Sheikh Bondok slip on his way in and out of class.


He finally ran away from the kuttab altogether and from every other kuttab in which his father tried to enroll him. He did not do much better when he went on to elementary school. His father despaired of ever giving him any book-learning and of himself becoming the proud and envied father of a well-educated 'official' whom he could show off to his envious relations and neighbours. He decided to use his son in the dairy he ran and do without one of his milk-boys, hoping he could eventually let Abu Sarie take over the business after his death.


Abu Sarie became a milk boy in Sharial Mumtaz. He was sup¬posed to deliver the milk to the customers in EI Baghala in the morning, measuring it out in his cans, and to carry the wooden yoghourt tray round in the evening. And in between he had to wash out the cans, collect the empty bowls, light the stove, and clean up the shop. This was what an ordinary, well-conducted milk boy was supposed to do. But Abu Sarie was by no means an ordinary person. And if the world were full of people like Abu Sarie what a chaotic world it would be. Abu Sarie, as I have said, had shrugged off all responsibility; Abu Sarie held it as his opinion that he ought never to be saddled with any res¬ponsibility; Abu Sarie behaved pretty much as he liked; as long as he was happy, let the world take care of itself. Whenever he was repri¬manded for his mischief, he would answer, “I'm happy that way!” The world was his oyster, though as his mother kept saying, “There's no eating your cake if you don't bother to bake it.”


This being so, it would be foolish to imagine that Abu Sarie carried out a milk boy's duties obediently.


The first time he went out balancing the yoghourt tray on his head, he was delighted with the novelty of the situation! He roamed the streets crying: “Lovely yoghourt! Creamy yoghourt!”


Then it occurred to him to go to Sharia EI Touloul where he used to meet his playmates for a game of street football, to see what was up and to show them how important he had become: master of a trade, and keeper of a tray.


As he appeared at the head of the lane the boys saw him and stopped the game and asked, “What have you got there?” “Yoghourt” he announced proudly, “Anybody feel like some?”


One of the boys kicked the ball. Abu Sarie felt his foot itching to join the game. He fought against the temptation, but when the ball rolled towards him, it was too much. He stood at the ready, and drew his foot backward to give a tremendous kick which landed the ball at the end of the alley and Abu Sarie on his back with the yoghourt bowls on top of him. He emerged from beneath the yoghourt in a daze, with his friends piled over him; they busily set themselves to the task of licking the yoghourt off his clothes and helped him pick up the pieces. Abu Sarie went back carrying the broken bowls and what was left of the yoghourt, and announced to his father quite simply that he had slipped on a piece of melon peel!


His father in desperation kicked up a great row and swore to send the boy to a reformatory. His mother intervened and reminded him that this was the boy's first round.


On the second round, he headed straight to Shari a el Touloul, rested the tray on a window sill, and started to play with his friends. The ball rose in the air, landed in the middle of the tray and upset the bowls. Abu Sarie calmly informed his father that this time, it had been a piece of watermelon peel.


His father raged and stormed and threatened to break his neck. The mother intervened, to remind her husband that this was only his second round, and begged him to give the boy a third chance.


On the third round, it looked as if he had not let his mother down. He returned late in the evening with an empty tray and announced to his proud parents that the customers would pay at the end of the month.


Abu Sarie went out every afternoon with the bowls full of yoghourt and returned to his contented parents with the empty bowls. He was as contented as they were, for all he did was head straight to Shari el Touloul, and instead of resting the tray on a window still where it might tumble down, he simply gathered the boys and handed the yoghourt round. When the bowls were all cleaned up they piled them on top of each other, placed them in a pit in the ground and covered them with the tray. After a strenuous game Abu Sarie carried his empty bowls home.


At the end of the month Abu Sarie was found out, and his father swore that if his son did not leave the house at once, then he would himself. His mother wept and wailed and said, “It's this blasted foot¬ball that's at the bottom of everything!”


But his absence from home did not last for more than a day. Fate intervened, and decided that it was the father who was to leave the house forever, and Abu Sarie came home to become the Master of the house after his father had been placed in his last abode in the cemetery of Bab el Wazir.


The mother had hoped that Abu Sarie might settle down, adjust to the situation and take charge of the shop, but once more she was disappointed. The first thing he did after his father's death was to buy a pair of football boots, a striped shirt and some coloured socks, and to announce to his mother that he had become the skipper of the “Roaring Lions” team. The poor woman took charge of the dairy in order to feed herself, her son and the' 'Roaring Lions” - a pack of tramps and beggars who had become addicted to yoghourt and expected it every evening after the game.


The team moved from their ground on Sharia el Touloul to a field in El Tibi so dusty that the players sank in to the knees. Abu Sarie and his team spent half their time buried in the dust and what remained of the other half in Abul Fadl's café at the corner of Sharia el Sad.


Abu Sarie soon gained fame as the Captain of the “Roaring Lions”, who won every match, for they insisted that the game should take place on their own field where no other team could compete. The dust rose and formed a thick cloud which hid the players from one another; everything disappeared from view including the ball, which always emerged, by some miraculous intervention, in the opponents’ goal.

Excerpt from: The Master-Milkman by Youssef el Sebai. Arabic Short Stories, 1945-1965, ed. Mahmoud Manzalaoui. The American University in Cairo, Press, 1985. pp 147-152.